Since becoming an adult and having my own place I have had a weekly ritual that has served me well. Friday is for cleaning, Saturday is for fun and Sunday is to prepare for the week to come. Even as a foster parent this has served me well. It is Sunday evening and I am preparing for my week. As I was mentally going over the list of what needs to get done this week, and when, it hit me that our home has been empty now for over a year. Empty of a placement, certainly not empty of children. For a childless couple this sometimes seems a bit strange at times.

My focus this week is that Stinkerbell will be turning three. I am helping her mom with some of her party details including the cake. Stinkerbell has known the style of cake she has wanted for her birthday for several months as she has conspired with my mom and the other little loves in my life. For some reason they all think that I can move mountains and make their cake dreams reality. I am not always so convinced of this.

In fact the past couple of weeks I have been quite stressed over the process needed for this cake. So much so that I did a test run of the techniques needed to see if I could really do this without totally ruining a toddler’s dream. Based on this test run I know when I need to bake the cake, when to construct and frost it, how long it needs to stay frozen before I can glaze it, and so on. I am still stressed.

As per my normal Sunday routine I am doing a run down of events this week including the schedule for making the cake. That is when it all came to me. Stinkerbell has been officially home now for a year. I wanted to send a congratulatory text to her mom. This is a big deal and her mom deserves praise. Then I had to sit for a minute.

Stinkerbell has been officially home for a year.

That means our home has been without a foster placement for over a year. The realization of that fact suddenly made me very sad for a moment. Rent-a-Dad and I had planned a few months break from fostering when Stinkerbell returned home. It made perfect sense. She had been our longest placement. We needed time for us, time to catch up on foster training, and time to be available if Stinkerbell or her family needed us.

Shortly after the trial home period was completed our home status returned to normal and we have been awaiting a placement since. Other than our emergency placement in November we have not received any other calls. Our caseworker has told us of the many near calls but no actual placement has happened. On one hand that makes us sad but on the other hand our home may be empty of foster children but it is in no way empty.

Today has been the first day in over a week that our home has not had a child in it. That has been our normal since starting our journey as foster parents. The children who have come into our care have never quite left our hearts or our home. We don’t have to wonder for very long how they are doing because the longest we have gone between visits is two weeks. With three children having been in our care and returning for regular visits it is a bit like a revolving door at our house. So yes, for now our home is empty of foster children but our hearts, and home, are very full with the sound of busy happy toddlers.

After my moment of sadness of an empty home, I got over it. My week is full up of love and happiness. It is packed with the same busy tasks every parent has and yes, I am terrified that this cake is going to be a hot mess. No, I am not your typical parent. Heck, this week I am not even your typical foster parent.

Some days that news saddens me because my brain was raised with words like “normal” and “typical ”. Today I just smile and shake my head. I have all the love and worries that a regular run of the mill parent has. I just don’t always have the children living under my roof. The fact that they are all safe and happy children is enough for me. I can deal with not being normal or typical. After all I don’t have time to worry about that, I have a cake to worry about making!

Traditions: Cornerstones, Hassles, or Non-Existent

traditions

Some traditions give us warm fuzzy feels while the mere mention of others has us reaching for bottles of aspirin and antacids. This season in particular I want to share some thoughts on traditions and the importance of keeping family get-togethers light and fun.

As a child you learn about the meaning of tradition; as a youth you learn the importance of keeping traditions; as a young adult you begin to learn what traditions are valuable to you and your loved ones; as part of a couple you learn about the need for balance; and as a seasoned couple you find out about the shelf life of traditions.

 

Cornerstones

Dictionary.com defines tradition as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation”. Wikipedia classifies tradition as “a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past”.

For me the word tradition has always been a word with some weight to it. I have felt overwhelmed and tied down by traditions. Traditions happen to be the cornerstones of religion and society. They can be tangible or intangible. Family traditions follow much the same pattern and weight but family traditions are a little easier to let evolve and grow with needs and expansion.

When I was the president of my sorority in my junior year of college I felt the burden to keep traditions sacrosanct. I did not want to be the person involved in letting an organization fail. The following year as a regular “sister” who was preparing for her wedding, while handling a senior thesis and graduation, I felt the need for flexible traditions within my sisterhood. Now as an alumna, I have imparted advice letting the next generation know that the important thing about a sorority is to remember why everyone wanted to be sisters to begin with. That some traditions need to evolve while others traditions are the foundation/cornerstone of an organization.

To quote the bible, and the Byrds, “To everything there is a season…”

Hassles

A good number of people learn about traditions from an early age. As we grow we learn that traditions can be something we look forward to or something we dread.

Admittedly when I hear the word tradition I think of Fiddler on the Roof with Tevye singing Tradition. This song has many meanings for me including describing how traditions were handled when I was a child. In my house growing up traditions meant the need to follow everything “by the book”. This can be rather stressful at times. Most events revolving around traditions I looked forward to with childlike glee. Others I would beg my mom to let me just stay in my room. The latter was my experience with Thanksgiving.

Once upon a time Thanksgiving meant big family get-togethers with a balance of responsibility shared between the adults who attended. Events like that I could get behind and love but like most things traditions evolve and not always for good.

At some point Thanksgiving became a holiday we shared with my dad’s parents. They would travel three hours south to see us and the holiday was always ripe with tension. My mom always felt like she had to be perfect and serve the perfect meal. Between the tense energy for her need of “perfection” and my hatred of being the child who was supposed to be “seen and not heard” by her grandparents, I always wanted to just spend Thanksgiving alone in my room.

Other than the enjoyment of watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade as a family, Thanksgiving was no more than a hassle for me as a child. I am excited that Thanksgiving is no longer this way for my family. The parade is still a BIG part of our day, as it means Christmas is right around the corner, but we can be more relaxed and flexible now about how we choose to celebrate.

 

Flexibility

As a young couple Rent-a-Dad and I learned the need to find a balance between his traditions and mine. Some family traditions overlapped while others were drastically different. A balance was needed even for the traditions that seemed as if we grew up in the same household.

A good example was Christmas Eve. Both of our families celebrated gift exchange on Christmas Eve. So we couldn’t easily be at both his house in Missouri and my house in Maryland at the same time. The best compromise did not come within the first years of our relationship or marriage but later as foster parents.

Ever since becoming foster parents we have learned that not everyone knows traditions can be positive experiences so there is a need to share the traditions we value and why. We have also learned to remember that some traditions are important to hold onto while others have a time and a place. Sometimes letting go of one tradition is just as important as preserving another. As families form and evolve, it is also important to remember that traditions do the same thing. Traditions have a lifecycle: point of creation; a point of evolution; and a time to retire.

Christmas is a time filled with traditions and is a time that reminds us most about the need to be flexible.

 

Non-Existent

DCS wants foster parents to be flexible about their own plans to make room for the children coming into their homes. Sometimes this is easy as gift giving and tradition sharing. Other times are more difficult. When re-unification is the goal, DCS will ask foster parents to put their own holiday plans on hold to ensure a child spends Christmas with his/her birth family. This often seems unfair.

It is important to remind DCS that your traditions matter too. Before you decide to hold fast to your traditions, first talk with the birth family.

Our experience has shown us that when you ask birth families to share their traditions they are more flexible than you thought they might be. They can also be open to hearing about your own traditions so they may start something new with positive memories.

When working with birth families remember to be flexible in your own traditions as you help build new ones.

 

Parting Words on Traditions

 

Over the past three years we have learned so much about sharing our own traditions and creating new ones.

As the grandchild of a French/Italian American, I have learned that Thanksgiving and Christmas are not just about turkeys or hams. That there is as much of a place on the table for homemade meatballs and pasta as there is gravy and mashed potatoes.

As one half of a married couple who are also foster parents, I have learned that traditions are not just about keeping memories alive or something you see on TV but are about the love and time you spend with family. Traditions are not (just) about specific dates instead they are about moments shared. In terms of gift giving, Christmas is still Christmas whether it is spent on December 25th or another day that week.

As a foster parent, I have learned that sharing traditions can help heal old wounds for birth families and yourself. Creating new traditions also have the same effect.

As a parent, I have learned that the messy moments in life mean more than all the perfect ones. From the baby who loves to roll around in the wrapping paper to the cat jumping into the tree. Deep breaths and laughter can guide you through the rough spots. So can reminders about boundaries and how family can be helpful.

Also as a foster parent, sometimes DCS is not the biggest push for flexibility or the opposite. Don’t be afraid to let your own family know you may need time, space, and their understanding as you work with the system.

So this holiday season as you are running around gift buying and focusing on the traditions dear to your family, remember to cut yourself some slack. That creating the perfect moment is tenuous and often unattainable. Focus on the happy messy moments, no matter how small (time or space), as they are the ones you will always remember and hold dear!

disney bound2

Over the years we have charted trips from Maryland to Georgia; Iowa to Maryland; Iowa to Georgia; Tennessee to Missouri; and a few other destinations less traveled by our families. We try to keep a journal for each trip we take mainly to know what worked, what didn’t and where are all the good stops we have enjoyed along the way.

The one constant road-trip-tip (say that one 10x fast!) for us has been to make sure we have a good idea of several stops we can make along the way. It helps so us to have an idea of where we might get gas, grab a bite to eat and even gives us something to look forward to as far as a place to stretch our legs and change drivers if not just a fun stop to make some memories.

Last year my husband and I lost our minds and planned a trip to Disney with two toddlers, an infant and my handicap mom.

Yep. We plum lost our minds.

There is a back story to our insanity. We were originally planning a get-away January 2014 but that wasn’t to be as we almost lost my mom to a severe illness. Then we became ill. Once we were all better, Branden and I thought “Let’s go after our nephews go home.” His logic being we would need happy thoughts to get us through missing our nephews on a daily basis as they had been staying with us every day for eight months. Life has fun throwing lemons our way because almost as soon as we thought about planning a trip Branden had a job offer he couldn’t refuse which meant he had to re-earn time off.

The sad news was postponing the trip again. The good news was my mom got better and we were able to use a trip to Disney as an end goal for her recovery. A placement later and we not only wanted to bring our nephews but also our newest addition as well. It all seemed right because it meant my mom could enjoy seeing these grandbabies at Disney, which might never happen again.

So… without further ado we set the date, purchased the tickets, made the hotel reservation and yes we were just that crazy to bring two toddlers, an infant and my mom with us.

While the trip in its entirety is a whole other blog post, the point I wanted to make here was that even this trip was not just about the destination, as lovely and magical as it is. As usual for us the trip was about the journey… to, from and everything in between. Sadly though, even with our best intentions sometimes trips really are about the destinations. That the road trip to the destination is a big push.

The first time we went to Disney, Branden and I were both chaperones for a girls choir that I was the business manager for. So our schedule was planned out for us including the bus ride down. I barely remember that road trip except there were a LOT of Disney movies being played on the bus to put everyone in the mood. The Disney visit was more then memorable and filled with stories I won’t easily forget like a bird landing on the head of one of our singers in the midst of a song. That chorister handled that incident better then most professionals!

The second time we went it was using our 10 year anniversary fund (long story) so my mother could see Disney for the first time. My dad had been really ill the year of our 10th anniversary so we did not get to take a special trip. When my dad passed away and we were faced with the idea of Christmas without him, Branden and I decided to use that fund so we could spend Christmas at Disney. It seemed the right thing to do but it meant that we didn’t really make the stops along the way that we thought we would. I don’t even really remember our trip down and I barely remember the trip back up. I do remember the bits in between which was the most important thing for that trip.

Now for this third trip, we were planning to have one senior and three little ones. From the start we knew there would need to be multiple stops both going and coming home. As most of those stops would be potty breaks and “the kids need to burn energy off” breaks, I knew that meant more unplanned stops but thought it never hurt to check the internet to see if there were any suggestions out there to make our road trip more pleasant. Mainly I wanted to have an idea of how spaced out the rest stops were and if there were any exits along our route that might offer quick food eats with healthier options.

So I looked up our route and what did I find? It was a mixed bag of nothing. There were rest stops and some restaurant locations listed for Georgia and a few Florida rest stops listed on www.i75exitguide.com. Sadly there were no specific gas exits only prices linked to www.gasbuddy.com (a website my in-laws use regularly when they are out of town for work). I then cast a wider net to see if there any other food suggestions listed somewhere for Georgia but there still wasn’t much out there. After a lot of digging I did find an interesting truckers site with some gas station ideas for making stops off of I-75 at www.findfuelstops.com/truck-stop-on-I-75. I was still left a bit sad since I knew we would need to take at least one stop in Florida before getting to Disney.

Overall what I wanted was some reassurances that we wouldn’t be spending all day on the road trip from hell. That we would have an enjoyable drive down where we could easily get gas, grab a bite to eat, let the toddlers burn some energy and of course change diapers all within a few feet of each other… How could the internet not have the answer to what I wanted? After all I knew for a fact that we were not the only people who lived in our area to drive to and from Disney. And that was just our area!

I am a very organized traveler. Even for trips where we have traveled the route often I have a trip binder. It has written (or printed) directions, itinerary, hotel information, etc. On years where I am very stressed about making the trip work well I even create a packing list and a list of things to buy for the trip. One year I even pre-packed our van with our luggage to make sure everything would fit. Then I took a picture and labeled the picture so Branden and my brother could later re-pack our van since I was going to be busy with my day job up to the day we left. So my trip binder is my trip “how to” for dummies because we all get a little dumb sometimes. Don’t believe me? Someday I will share the story of how we lost an entire state on my way to college.

My point here is that when I am armed with information I feel more secure about the road trip, which does kind of set the mood for the first few days of any trip. This trip I even had a goal for taking notes on the places where we took stops so I could do what I couldn’t find: create a basic road stop list that people could add to. Sadly my notes for the return trip ended up as toddler fodder, meaning one of the toddlers got a hold of my note book and most of my notes got torn to shreds. This made me quite sad as the Pizza Hut on our return trip had such a wonderful staff that I looked past their outdated bathrooms with absent of diaper changing stations. Honestly this stop made our whole return trip home much more enjoyable then we had originally thought!

Even with most of my notes gone I was able to make a small list of the exits we took on our way down to Disney. I hope the small list of noted places can help others who like to plan make a more enjoyable car-ride down to Disney and that others will add their favorite stops to this list!

I really wanted to provide more details and lots of useful stop information but like much about life, lemons were tossed and we did the best we could to make lemonade. This time it meant not getting upset with the toddler who unpacked the luggage sitting next to him or tore/shredded pages out of my trip binder when we got home. The good news is that we hope to make a few more trips to Florida in the next couple of years to visit family and friends. Maybe we will even take a side trip for another much needed family vacation! So we hope to add to this list as much as we hope others will help add to this list as well!

 

Georgia

Exit 179 Southbound

Rest-Stop

Note: While the rest stop may seem a bit over crowded when you pull in there is over flow parking in the back. There really wasn’t an area where I could let the kids stretch their legs because of how tight of an area the rest stop was. I ended up being worried that they might get hit by a car. The only leg stretching they did was running around inside the small bathroom and taking trash from the van to the trash can.

 

Exit 146

Pilot Travel Center

Note: Was a good stop for gas. The price of gas was pretty decent and comparable to Tennessee. The gas station had an Arby’s adjoining it. We ended up not grabbing food here because there really wasn’t an area for the kids to let loose some steam. Instead we grabbed snacks and got back on the road. The kids were ok with this since we had started our trip so early. They mainly wanted to nap in the car for most of the morning.

 

Exit 22

Burger King

Note: Wonderful stop! There was a play yard in the Burger King so the kids got to stretch their legs and let off some energy. The bathrooms even had changing tables. Yay! Bonus was that this exit also had a few gas stations to choose from. I believe we used the Shell Station but I don’t know for sure as that was on one of the pages that the toddler shredded.